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Shirine Azzi 25 Nov 2014

48 Hours on Beirut’s Art Scene

Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran said, “art is a step from what is obvious and well known toward what is arcane and concealed”. Art in Beirut is no exception in its ability to provide insight into the psyche of the place and its people. I am in Beirut for only two days, and want to see as much art as possible. Come along as we explore the energy and zeal of the capital’s art scene in just 48 hours.

I spend my first morning in Beirut wandering the streets of Hamra, an area which provides ample opportunity to witness the city’s hustle and bustle at its best with the non-stop tooting of car horns, the elderly men sitting on street corners sipping Turkish coffee and chatting while thumbing their prayer beads, AUB students on their mobile phones speaking in that quintessentially Lebanese mélange, ‘Hi, ca va, keefik?’

This soundtrack accompanies me to stop number one on my Beirut art tour, the elegant Agial Art Gallery on Abdul Aziz Street. A mid-sized space, it was showcasing Shafic Abboud’s ‘Nudes’ exhibit, a series of 35 paintings, depicting the female body, in a semi-abstract yet undeniably human fashion. One of the gallery representatives tells me that this is the first time this series of drawings is on public display -10 years on from Abboud’s passing. She goes on to tell me that the Agial Gallery had just come back from exhibiting at the London Frieze Art Fair earlier in October, one of the world’s leading contemporary art fairs.

Agial Art Gallery. (Image via Facebook)

As the gentle autumn breeze mingles with the heat of the midday sun, I make my way over to Ayyam Gallery, located on Zeitoune Street. A sleek gallery, surrounded by the luxurious shops and restaurants of Zaitunay Bay, it portrays a very different image to that of humble Hamra. The almost corporate feeling of the neighboring buildings glares against the shiny interior of the gallery but does not overshadow the art. The exhibition features recent sculptures by Nadim Karam as well as paintings by Safwan Dahoul.

Karam’s steel sculptures embody his ‘Hap-situs’ (Happening + Situation) concept The objective, as described by the gallery, was “to punctuate the existing social stagnation of cities seized by political precarity or rigid structures.” Dahoul’s monochromes, part of his ‘Dream’ series, address the human toll of the conflict in his native Syria. Both artists’ works fuse harmoniously in the serious ambiance of Ayyam Gallery, and the result is an engaging exposition.

Following one of the best, and certainly biggest, lunches I have attended in a very long time at Em Sherif restaurant in Achrafieh, I take a taxi to the Beirut Exhibition Center. The Center is preparing for artist Liliane Tyan’s exhibition, “Transparence en Mutation” and I am allowed in to view the works prior to the official opening. The vivid colors of Tyan’s dynamic tableaux bring the space to life. It’s an impressive achievement given the considerably large dimensions of the exhibition space.

The Beirut Exhibition Center. (Image via Facebook)

By the time I have finished taking in Tyan’s paintings and I step outside, it is nearing 6pm and it is beginning to get darker out. My walk back to Hamra takes me towards the scenic AUB, the sun is setting over the Mediterranean sea to my right with the gorgeous campus, an intellectual haven, to my left. Within the campus, the Zaha Hadid designed IFI building proudly overlooks the dramatic seascape. It’s clear artists in Lebanon don’t have to look too far for inspiration.

The Tanit Gallery in Mar Mikhael stands next to Beirut’s iconic ‘Electricite du Liban’ building, a run-down relic subject to much ironic graffiti, which mainly points out Lebanon’s general lack of electricity. In sharp contrast, the Tanit Gallery is a shiny and new piece of modern architecture, and this is where I head to on my second day of the art tour. On display is “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar”, a photography exhibition by Taryn Simon. Simon’s photographs give their viewers insight into an otherwise hidden aspects of American society. Her work reveals spaces that are inaccessible to the public yet integral to the foundation and function of America. In doing so, she challenges the divide between those with – and those without – the right of access.

Art on 56th Gallery. (Image via Facebook)

A short saunter away from the Tanit Gallery, and nestled in the heart of Gemmayzeh, is Art on 56th. The independent gallery is showcasing the calligraphy of Syrian calligrapher, designer and writer Mouneer Al Shaarani. The compositions exemplify the disciplined passion of Arabic calligraphy, and are beautiful in their aesthetic and linguistic symmetry and simplicity.

Continuing my foray into Gemmayzeh, I walk into the nearby Urban Saifi Gardens, just off Rue Pasteur. This hostel/restaurant/self-dubbed center of urban culture displays works by its resident artist on the walls. It epitomizes the creative, liberal hub that is Gemmayzeh. One block away sits Dehab Jewelry Gallery, a modest and charming space that promotes local artists and jewelery designers. I pop in to briefly admire the intricately designed pieces before leaving the neighborhood.

I end where my journey began, in Hamra, and this time at the Zamaan Gallery just off Sadat Street. I attend the opening night of Saadeh George’s “Les Jardins d’Uruk” exhibition. George’s collographs are inspired by Mesopotamian mythology, and each dreamscape tells us a story of another world. The prints are mesmerizing and thought-provoking, and evoke a sense of being transported in time and space.

In 48 hours, I manage to find an art scene brimming with diversity, imagination and passion; it’s a whirlwind of expression, much like the city itself. I leave Beirut with the impression that no amount of political unrest could moderate its artistic fervor.

Shirine Azzi is a freelance journalist and writer whose love for Beirut takes her back to the city on a regular basis. Usually based in London, Shirine is Lebanese by origin, and her interests include art, politics and travel.